Kid-friendly horror movies are often looked at with suspicion, but it’s a genre I believe is important. I’m not saying you should traumatize your child by sitting them down and turning on “Hereditary,” but a movie that isn’t afraid to get creepy or have real stakes can offer formative experiences and valuable lessons to young audiences, teaching them not to stigmatize negative emotions like fear — a familiar notion for those familiar with Pixar’s “Inside Out” — because sometimes things have to get scary in order for there to be a happy ending. Movies like “Coraline,” “ParaNorman” and even the original “Ghostbusters” all attest to this in different ways.
With that philosophy in mind, I was excited for the latest entry in the genre, “The House with a Clock in Its Walls,” an adaptation of the 1973 book of the same name by John Bellairs. Directed by torture porn king Eli Roth (“Death Wish”), of all people, it follows 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro, “Daddy’s Home 2”), who moves in with his eccentric uncle Jonathan (Jack Black, “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot”) after the deaths of his parents and learns his uncle is a warlock searching for a sinister clock left in the wall of his home by its evil previous owner. Together with Jonathan and his uncle’s neighbor, a powerful witch named Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett, “Ocean’s 8”), Lewis must uncover his own potential as a warlock and find the clock before it brings about the end of the world.
For two-thirds of “The House with a Clock in Its Walls,” I was onboard. The characters and their personalities were well-drawn, and they were brought to life with a set of lively performances from the entire cast, especially the adults. Jack Black and Cate Blanchett don’t seem like the most obvious pairing in theory, but on screen, their chemistry and friendly sniping back and forth quickly steals the show. Best of all, it’s genuinely unsettling and doesn’t always talk down to its target demographic. It has its failings, yes, mostly a set of unfunny fart jokes and jump scares — the fart jokes of horror — but there’s also foreboding production design and a mythology that Roth uses to build atmosphere and tell kids to embrace what makes them weird.
Then, as it enters its home stretch, everything falls apart. If you’ve ever taken a screenwriting class, you’ve been told that if you’re having a problem with your third act, you’re actually having a problem with your second. This is usually correct; the idea is that you spend your first two acts setting up pins that your third act will knock down. If we were to extend the bowling metaphor, Eli Roth spends the first 80 minutes of “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” setting up his pins, then spends the last 25 minutes of his movie urinating on them.
Strong characterization is replaced by garish, godawful CGI. Clever dialogue is replaced by flatly delivered clunkers like, “Come with us to the turret. It is a special turret.” Atmosphere and an almost Spielbergian sense of wonder — “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” was produced by Amblin Entertainment, Spielberg’s production company — falls away, leaving sight gags that wouldn’t be out of place in a “Minions” movie. For a story that champions embracing what makes you stand out, to see it fall prey to the same tropes that plague most kids movies and start condescending to its audience is disheartening.
There’s not much left by the end of “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” that can be said to be untouched by this, including its status as what could have been a good example of kid-friendly horror. It’s tarnished by what feels like a studio’s idea of “what kids are into these days,” and this is coming from someone who is usually very hesitant to call “studio interference” on anything. What could have been a formative experience for some of the kids in the theater ends by regarding them as worthy of little more than a shrug, and so it received the same from many of them as the credits rolled.